When Joe Thornton is informed that, even at 41 years and 198 days of age, he only became the second-oldest Toronto Maple Leaf to score a goal, Jumbo wants to know about the man standing between him and history.
Who? (Allan Stanley, the Hall of Fame defenceman.) And how old? (41 years, 252 days.)
“So… I gotta play a couple more years, you’re sayin’, eh?” Thornton smiled.
If the big-bearded, carpool-karaoke-singing, hockey-hug-initiating legend keeps having himself nights like Saturday, we wouldn’t rule it out.
Even though the oldest forward in the league has been influencing the outcome of NHL games years before Tim Stützle was so much as an umlaut in his parents’ eye.
Sheldon Keefe had a feeling heading into Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre that this would be the night his prime-time top unit would finally break out. Third time’s a charm. The coach just wasn’t betting on Thornton to bust the dam before dynamic linemates Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
“I don’t know that I had Jumbo maybe being the first one to get on the board,” Keefe smiled.
“That line, you could tell right from the drop of the puck today, was going to have a night. They've been working really hard. Haven't had the results here quite yet, but they've been really working, and it was just a matter of time for the line.”
Fuelling a 3-2 Leafs victory over the Senators and salvaging a split in the weekend back-to-back, the performance of Thornton-Matthews-Marner was about as dominant as a first-line gets. That trio, Keefe’s most-used unit at five-on-five, skated nine and a half minutes together, out-attempting the opposition 13-3 in the process.
All three notched their first goals of the season, with Marner rebounding from Friday’s lacklustre showing to register three points.
“We’re still trying to get the whole rhythm thing down,” Marner explained. “It was really our first good game together. We were moving well. Down low we were really creating a lot of chances, holding on to the puck, weren’t rushing plays. I think we're really using our creativity out there -- and that's something we weren’t doing the first two games.”
The Leafs' top trio is also communicating more on the ice, an element led by the boisterous, carefree Thornton whether he’s in sneakers or skates.
“That first goal, he’s screaming the whole time he’s behind me,” noted Marner, who set up Thornton with a slick drop pass on the rush.
Thornton’s first thought, of course, was to feed Matthews cross-ice on the two-on-one. Only when the Sens defender took away that lane did Thornton fire his warning shot to Allan Stanley.
“The amount of attention these two guys get it, I just gotta get open for ’em,” Thornton said. “It's been so fun with Mitchy and Matty. We have a lot of fun out there, and I think we'll continue to keep growing as a line. Because we are having fun and we get excited before every game, I think you can tell each game we’re getting better. And that's a real good sign. Yeah, I love playing with those two kids.”
Matthews won an offensive draw to set up Marner’s quick-strike, which deflected off a sprawling Erik Gudbranson’s skate. And another Marner drop pass teed up Matthews’ bullet one-timer for the power-play winner.
A balanced contribution from three stars who’d had a number of positive shifts but had been snake-bitten up to this point was a major reason Toronto outshot Ottawa 40-19 and gave the puck away eight fewer times than their opponent.
What’s telling is that Keefe expanded the praise of his top line to their defensive efforts, particularly Thornton.
The most senior Leaf has played thrice in four nights, averaging 17:58 per game. He’s on pace for his most ice time since he was a sprightly 38-years-old.
“Joe had really great legs right to the very end of the game,” Keefe said. “Some of our best tracks and catching guys from behind and having a stick on the puck and creating a turnover the last couple of games here in Ottawa came from Joe and his effort there. So, feeling really good about what he's been able to do and how he looks in that area.”
Certainly, it’s too early to declare the Jumbo and the Kids experiment a rousing success, but Saturday at least hinted at the greatness three guys with elite skill can stir when they’re clicking.
“We want to get better every single day we're here,” Marner said. “Tonight was a great step forward for us three.”
• Brutal break for 19-year-old rookie Nick Robertson. In his NHL regular-season debut, the winger popped off the screen in his 2:20 worth of work, but suffered a knee injury when he was crunched into the boards by Drake Batherson.
“It looks like he's definitely gonna miss some time,” Keefe said.
More on Robertson’s status will be known after his MRI, which could be as soon as Sunday.
• Jason Spezza skated less than seven minutes but was a perfect 10-for-10 in the faceoff circle, a major reason Toronto won 63 per cent of its draws.
• Even goalie Jack Campbell had to tip his cap to Stützle’s incredible first NHL goal, a one-timed clapper plucked out of midair.
“The only thing I could think other than 'I should've had it' was, 'I just want to shake his hand,'” Campbell said. “That was a heck of a play. What a young talent. It's good for the league.”
• Keefe spoke highly of Campbell’s work in the victory. Toronto’s starting goalie for Monday’s game versus Winnipeg has yet to be announced.